I cannot overemphasize the importance of going through life with proper posture. Your posture, the way you hold your body while standing or sitting, is the foundation for performing from simple to complex everyday tasks. Even more, it can play a key role in your physical and mental health and affect your emotional and spiritual growth. Improving your posture can improve your health in so many ways. The benefits of a good posture range from short term, like reducing back pain and headaches, to long term benefits, like preventing some chronic diseases and preparing for healthy aging.
The core of good posture is the spine. The spine houses the spinal canal, a cavity that envelops the spinal cord that transfers motor, sensory, and autonomic signals between the body and brain. We can visualize the spine as the vessel that conducts the information from your body’s internal sensors and external senses to your brain. Your brain interprets the information it receives, comparing it with its expectations, and this process makes up your experience of the world. In an interesting representation, in yoga, the spine is considered as the axis of the universe, and therefore great emphasis is given to correct posture.
What happens when we are not aligned?
Posture is the way you hold your body when you are sitting or standing. A good, solid posture is the basis for managing the weight of our head and body and for carrying weights and engaging in actions. When the body is aligned, the forces exerted by gravity are balanced and can be supported by our joints, ligaments, muscles and bones. Good posture ensures that no one part of the body is overstressed.
When the body is not aligned, extra weight is exerted to body tissues, causing gradual degeneration and possibly structural damage, like spinal discs herniation and subluxation, the formation of bone spurs and spinal stenosis. The above structural alterations and damage around the spine may exert pressure on the nerves causing stress on the nervous system, pain and muscle spasms. In a misaligned body, some muscles have to work more to compensate. These muscles contract and become harder, while others inevitably become inhibited and weak. The result is that the body enters a vicious cycle as the imbalanced body leads to more strain to body tissues, causing even greater structural damage and resulting imbalance.
The stages of degeneration
The chiropractic community recognizes four stages of spinal degeneration. In the first stage, the spine begins to lose its natural curves and normal balance. Because of poor posture, soft tissues and spinal disks start to age and decay more quickly.
In the second stage, there is a higher degree of structural degeneration as spinal discs become thinner, bone spurs may begin to form, and spinal stenosis may occur. The above structural alterations and damage around the spine now exert pressure on the nerves causing pain, stress on the nervous system and fatigue.
In the third stage, there is an even more significant postural imbalance. We observe advanced nerve damage, scar tissue and bone deformation. Some consequences are increased weakness, physical and mental fatigue and possibly some disability issues.
In the fourth stage, the postural misalignment is severe. There is significant nerve damage, and bones may begin to fuse. At this stage, some of the decay is considered irreversible. We observe various degrees of physical or mental disability, pain and fatigue.
So what are the consequences of a bad posture?
Some consequences of bad posture are direct and related to acute pain, like experiencing pain along the back and headaches. However, the complexity of the human musculoskeletal system and the fact that the nervous system can also get impaired in the process leads to numerous consequences, some of which are not properly understood.
If not corrected, poor posture increases the risk of injuries, as ergonomically malfunctioning muscles can be injured or cause damage to other parts of the body. The excess strain that is exerted to the spine because of incorrect posture, when performing a challenging activity like lifting weight, can also lead to disc herniation and pinched nerve. This can happen when the herniated disk applies pressure to a nerve. The pinched nerve can cause acute pain that can radiate to distant members, like the hands or feet, and other symptoms, like tingling, numbness or even weakness. Furthermore, continued degeneration of the spine can lead to chronic pain, stiffness, a decline of mobility and physical ability.
Poor posture and related body stress over time can lead to a prolonged distressed state and induce sympathetic dominance. Sympathetic dominance is a state of an overdrive of the sympathetic nervous system, the body’s fight or flight mechanism. Overactivation of this reactionary component of the autonomic system can cause various issues, like GI issues, hormonal imbalance, sleep disfunction and mental problems.
Poor posture can affect your digestion process. Hunching can physically impede your gut system from functioning optimally. Even more, poor posture can induce sympathetic dominance, a state that undermines the optimal digestive function and can cause many GI issues.
As slumped lungs can have an impeded capacity to expand, poor posture can also affect your breathing function. This means that the lungs cannot work at an optimum level and obtain a maximum amount of oxygen.
Nervous system issues that derive from poor posture can also affect your mental health, from reducing the quality of your sleep to increasing stress and reducing mental clarity. It is hard to have deep uninterrupted sleep if you suffer from back pain. It is also difficult to have clear thoughts and follow deep reasoning paths if your contracted muscles and compressed nerves “pull” your thoughts in different directions. Some studies have confirmed the association between disc herniation and mood and anxiety disorders
Poor posture is also related to some emotional troubles, affecting your confidence and self-esteem. Your posture is a fundamental component of your body language and inevitably conditions your interactions with others. Slumping over or continuously twitching when standing before someone can provoke feelings of unease or even hostility, thus impairing your ability to establish a positive connection. Difficulty in opening up and connect with others can lead to low self-esteem and add on a possible inclination to feelings of depression.
Forward head posture
The forward head, also known as iHunch, because of the correlation with the use of smartphones, is a postural misalignment that warrants extra consideration. In an ideal alignment, the head is positioned above the shoulders. The iHunch is characterized by a posture with the head sitting somewhat forward of the shoulders. Due to a lever effect, hunching can multiply the effective load that is exerted on the upper back and neck vertebra and lead to gradual degeneration. Hunching over a tablet or smartphone and maintaining this imbalanced position for many hours per day can cause forward head posture. As the use of laptops, and much worse, tablets and smartphones have increased dramatically over the last years, this problem is becoming more and more critical, even at younger ages. The symptoms include neck, upper back, and even jaw pain, headaches, decrease shoulder and neck mobility.
How to fix bad posture?
There are many ways you can go about improving your posture. Different therapies target different results, like pain relieve, mobility recovery, muscle stretching or strengthening and reeducation or reprogramming of posture, movement and breathing. Some lifestyle changes are also to be considered if your current patterns are detrimental to your posture.
The good news is that you have many tools in your arsenal. Which one is best suited for you depends on your condition, but a comprehensive approach would combine various treatments to provide each individual with the best possible results. For example, pain relief techniques are valuable, but if performed alone may produce results that are only temporary. Spinal manipulation for mobility recovery and posture correction may not last without strengthening core muscles to support correct posture. Trying to exercise outright to reinforce your body may be inefficient or even harming if your body is blocked and out of balance.
Before starting any therapy, consult with your family doctor or a spine specialist that you trust and ask him for advice and guidance. He will be able to propose what is best suited for you. In some cases, when non-operative treatment cannot offer a solution, your doctor may advise surgery. However, in most cases, you can see great results with less invasive methods. A comprehensive approach to improve your posture could include some of the following.
Applying cold or heat and prescripted drugs, like anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, can help reduce pain and inflammation. The above solutions can be helpful to deal with acute pain or to reduce inflammation after an injury.
Chiropractic sessions, involving mainly spinal manipulation techniques, can help to restore mobility and alleviate pain caused by subluxation. Chiropractors may propose some strengthening exercises or postural changes to patients.
Like chiropractors, osteopaths also perform manual manipulation on the spine, along with other techniques like soft tissue manipulation. They may also propose some strengthening exercises or postural advice.
Physical therapists take a more comprehensive approach to deal with pain and strengthening your body. They often propose passive physical therapy techniques, like applying cold or heat, using ultrasound or working with trigger points, alongside with active therapy techniques, like exercises to strengthen targeted core muscles and obtain proper posture.
Pilates and yoga are also great ways to stretch and strengthen the core muscles, reduce tension and improve posture.
Therapeutic massage and acupuncture can be efficient for easing stress and, at least temporarily, reducing chronic back and neck pain.
The Alexander technique focuses on reprogramming habits of posture, movement and breathing to free up tensions.
The Feldenkrais Method, can also bring awareness and help correct poor posture and movement habits that may be creating injury and pain.
Some more thoughts
Be aware that all efforts that you undertake may be futile if you don’t make necessary changes in your everyday life. Our sedentary lifestyle, particularly passing too much time in front of a screen, is a crucial aggravating factor. If you cannot avoid working long hours with a computer, you should at least consider some ergonomic changes to your work post. Make sure that you set up your computer station correctly to minimize any strain on your back, neck and arms. Try to be mindful of your posture, take frequent breaks from the computer to get up to walk and stretch. You can find useful advice about workplace posture and ergonomics from the University of California in Los Angeles.